Book Club Channel
Context Is Everything: A Scholarly Response to "Revelation of the Magi"
"Context is everything," we hear. This response to Brent Landau's Revelation of the Magi comes from a multiple-context kind of day in which I steeped in his text and translation. I thought it might offer a nice variety of lenses into the relevance of this volume for Christian faith as well as its scholarly merit (a phrase that has multiple connotations, whether scholars fess up to it or not). The RevMagi, as Landau dubs it, accompanied me on one day's journey begun in a "spiritual classics," adult-ed class in a Midwestern-Protestant congregation, then moved to a relatively-fast-food pizzeria, to an airport, a train, a taxi, then to an East-Coast theological seminary for a business consultation. Each context brings relief to different aspects of the work.
Overall, I was delightfully surprised with this little volume. As a scholar in the academic discipline of Christian spirituality, I confess I read the title with a little hesitation and dread. The story of the Magi, as Landau himself observes, is not a hotbed of critical theological scholarship. I've not spent a lot of time there myself, except within the ever-present Christmas carol and the occasional fictional exploration of its narrative. (The Other Side December 1982, pp. 28-30 is one of my favorites. See also The Secret of Gifts: A Story for Old & Young, by Paul Flucke.) In the text's defense and for context of my perspective, I've not had reason to spend much time in Landau's work or the Magi story. I'm not a biblical scholar, nor does the method of my discipline pursue analytical discourse in the fashion that scriptural-textual scholars do. The scholarly merit of this work, therefore, comes through a non-specialist's assessment, were we to be precise.
Were I to be more helpful to the vast majority of readers, however, I would say that the scholarship meets a majority of the basic criteria we look for. Landau's completed dissertation from Harvard moved into the scholarly article ‘summary' published by a peer-reviewed, academic journal Apocrypha. Landau teaches at an accredited university and has begun to establish himself through his teaching and research. He landed a contract with an extremely well known publisher and within the early years of his career, he has published his first book. Landau's credentials for contribution are well within scholarly expectations.
The merit and relevance of the work varied in my assessment, depending upon the context imagined (or in this case, experienced). For those who were in the adult-ed class engaging a classical sermon of Meister Eckhart, The Revelation of the Magi would be a fascination and intriguing read. The narrative fits well within the common sense of ‘spiritual life as a journey' and as Landau observes, everyone seems to know the story of the Three Wise Men. It will satisfy many who yearn for a textual source to engage in more literal fashion.
The difficulty here is that the near-mythical character of the narrative may mislead the more literally-minded Christian. Many look to texts to prove or disprove beliefs of their fellow-believers, and fewer than we would like actually have the skills or suppleness of mind to assess an ancient text critically. Congregations have many different missions, and rarely is there one whose sole purpose is such an engagement of an ancient text. Landau's offered glimpses of critical-textual analysis may be a good antidote to some of this, though perhaps bit discomforting to many as well. Personally, I think that's one of the text's greatest features: we get to see inside a scriptural-scholar's argument for locating, dating, and arguing for an author of an ancient text. I suspect few would make the leap from this text to assessing canonical scripture in such fashion, however. The ‘remove' of this text, therefore, makes learning in that way unlikely for congregational contexts.
The Rev. Dr. Lisa M. Hess listens, teaches, and writes as a Presbyterian minister (PCUSA) and practical theology professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. She is the author of Artisanal Theology: Intentional Formation in Radically Covenantal Companionships (Cascade, 2009). Visit Dr. Hess' Expert Site at Patheos here.